Appsolutely no point? The role of apps on the TV.

Following the launch of our YouTube HTML5 app (which went live last week), we’ve spent a lot of time welcoming the great and the good of the UK tech press to Freesat Towers to talk about the app, Freesat in general and our future plans for the platform. One of the questions we got asked most is what our future app strategy is, and when we will add a wider range of non-video apps to the platform.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Apps are now absolutely synonymous with the tech world we live in. Over half of us in the UK have smartphones, and apps are every bit as important to the smartphone experience as the user interface or the build of the device. Globally, we downloaded over 1.75bn apps in just one week at the end of 2012.

In some ways it’s easy to see why TV is seen as a natural next step for an app platform. TV has taken some major inspiration from mobile in recent years, user interfaces being an obvious example. Today, almost every TV manufacturer also offers apps as part of their latest ranges of smart devices. But should they bother?

The debate on the merits of TV apps has been done to death in recent years, with many questioning the merits of the TV as an app platform. The key arguments centre around the TV being a shared, not personal, device, and that it is a lean-back medium that people are less likely to want to interact with than their phones.  Our own viewer research at Freesat shows a sharp divide between “passive” viewers and “active” TV planners.

Freesat’s interest in this debate has been rekindled by some of the subtle changes that the major TV manufacturers and platforms have made in their platforms this year, suggesting apps are becoming less of a priority for them. It’s very noticeable that Samsung has demoted apps within its 2013 line-up of Smart TVs. Apps were front and centre of their 2011 and 2012 TVs; now, they are relegated to their own section of the UI. UPC’s Horizon service also has apps, but they too are very much a secondary part of the experience.

Which makes us think – less is more.  Afterall – how many apps on our smartphones do we use frequently? A quick poll of the Freesat office puts the number at 5-6 – which, coincidentally (or not) is also about the average number of TV channels that people habitually watch and revert to.

This is not to say that non-video apps have no place on the TV. The BBC revealed in 2010 that 12.7m people used red button services every week. But great programming remains key to the TV experience. If our customers start asking, en masse, for a smartphone-like variety of apps on the TV, then we would look again. But for now, most still want their TV to do what TV is supposed to do – deliver great programmes that they can find quickly and easily. Whether there is an app-etite [groan] for more….remains to be seen.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

By Freesat